World news – Emails reveal Sutton’s concern about ‘wrong cohort’ staffing quarantine hotels


Staff had been infected and clusters at the Stamford Hotel and Rydges on Swanston were about to cause a second wave.

On June 20, in the midst of the quarantine scheme’s imminent demise, Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy, emailed Victoria’s Chief Health Officer, Brett Sutton.

Professor Sutton was referring to the private security guards brought in to help run the program.

Professor Murphy wrote back: « If you need a short term surge in workforce in the meantime, aspen (private health company) or even ADF could help at very short notice. »

Later, in a statement provided to the COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Inquiry, Professor Sutton said « with the benefit of hindsight » he could see the issues presented by the use of security guards at hotels.

« I can see that using a highly casualised workforce, generally from a lower socio-economic background … where that means that poor leave provisions limit how one can care for and financially support one’s family if unwell.

« In addition, where many of these staff might combine multiple, piecemeal jobs across different industries to maintain an adequate income, creating transmission risk. »

Professor Sutton in fact did not know that security was even guarding these hotels until the outbreaks occurred in June. Despite being the Government’s foremost doctor, he also did not have « oversight » on whether his directions on PPE and cleaning were being followed in the hotels.

Professor Sutton said that this was due to the organisational structure of the response, which he described as a « beast ».

It was a role he sought, but was overlooked for by Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) deputy secretary Melissa Skilbeck.

« As Chief Health Officer, and accountable with all of the powers that I’m exercising under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act, [I held the view] that it’s important for me to have line of sight of the application of those controls, » he said.

« With respect to a pandemic specifically, I do have a view that a public health physician with communicable disease experience and tropical medicine experience and the specific qualifications and experience that I have, is a not inappropriate appointment to the state controller position, for sure. »

Professor Sutton said Emergency Management Victoria’s (EMV) Andrea Spiteri, who was jointly appointed to the state controller position with Jason Helps, was an « excellent leader » who held some health expertise.

But Professor Sutton and other members of his direct team held concerns that other aspects of the hotel quarantine program, known as Operation Soteria, were not being supervised by people with health backgrounds.

« I did have some reservations about the lack of involvement of Public Health Command in Operation Soteria, » he said in a statement that was tendered to the inquiry.

His colleague, Finn Romanes, was less diplomatic in an email sent to key bureaucrats on April 9, demanding an urgent review of the ill-fated scheme.

« There are now considerable complexities and considerable risks … unless issues are addressed there will be a risk to the health and safety of detainees. »

The email was read out to the inquiry, and Professor Sutton agreed that he shared the concerns at the time.

Earlier, the inquiry heard Professor Sutton was not responsible for overseeing compliance within the state’s hotel quarantine program.

Professor Sutton told today’s hearing his public health team provided advice and directions on personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning policies for the hotels.

But he said once the advice was provided to the massive bureaucratic taskforce, his team was unaware about whether the directions were actually being followed.

« Is it fair to say that [your team] doesn’t have oversight of how they’re [health directions] being proliferated and complied with? » Mr Ihle asked.

As the public health emergency was announced, he could have compelled guests in the hotels to be tested, but he never did and said his team never saw a need to.

Eventually, the Government mandated that people had to be spend an extra 10 days under guard in a hotel if they refused a test.

« If you want to make [hotel quarantine] robust as possible, making more stringent requirements for testing is a reasonable consideration, » he said.

He said he knew of one person in quarantine who tested positive to the virus after leaving the Stamford Plaza hotel and then infected the person who drove them home.

Asked whether it was possible more people had left hotel quarantine with the virus, he answered: « That is potentially the case — they would have been questioned on the basis of their symptoms and would have declared that they were symptom-free.

« Part of the reflection on strengthening the testing regimen in hotel quarantine is for that very purpose. »

Professor Sutton noted in his statement to the inquiry that, before the scheme was announced, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) did not agree returned travellers should be forced into quarantine in hotels.

« As discussed, prior to National Cabinet’s announcement on 26 March 2020, the AHPPC did not endorse the idea of quarantining travellers at hotels (or other designated facilities), » Professor Sutton wrote.

Professor Sutton said he did not know Prime Minister Scott Morrison would announce the program that day, despite Mr Morrison telling journalists the decision was based on public health advice.

But the Chief Health Officer said he took the Prime Minister on « face value » and believed his statements were true.

On Tuesday, the inquiry heard Emergency Management Victoria Commissioner Andrew Crisp did not believe Australian Defence Force troops were needed to support the hotel quarantine program.

This service may include material from Agence France-Presse (AFP), APTN, Reuters, AAP, CNN and the BBC World Service which is copyright and cannot be reproduced.

AEST = Australian Eastern Standard Time which is 10 hours ahead of GMT (Greenwich Mean Time)


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